Hanover says state law limits ability to review church proposal on Greensboro Road

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-05-2023 10:50 AM

Modified: 12-08-2023 3:19 PM


HANOVER — A new state law shielding religious institutions from certain land-use regulations is limiting the town’s authority to review a proposed church for up to 400 congregants on Greensboro Road, according to town staff.

On Tuesday, the Planning Board will consider whether to approve a project by Christ Redeemer Church, which is seeking to build a two-story, 21,500-square-foot house of worship at the northern corner of Greensboro Road and Velvet Rocks Drive. The church currently holds weekly services at Hanover High School.

Notably, the site plan submitted to the town by the church lacks numerous details typical of such proposals, including the number of parking spaces, outdoor lighting design, stormwater management, traffic management and landscaping, among others.

Normally, a project application missing such information would be deemed incomplete by the Planning Board and returned to the developer. However, a statute signed into law last year by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu severely limits how municipalities may regulate land that is intended for religious purposes.

NH RSA 674:76 states that “no zoning ordinance or site plan review regulation shall prohibit, regulate or restrict the use of land or structures primarily used for religious purposes” — with the exception of regulations concerning building height, yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space and building coverage.

According to town staff, the bill was crafted in response to a Bedford, N.H., zoning ruling in 2021 that prohibited a small church from running religious services in a residential home.

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The bill’s intent, according to a statement submitted by the sponsors, was to “require that land use laws be applied equally to all permitted uses.” The bill was sponsored by three Republican lawmakers – Rep. Kurt Wuelper, Strafford, Linda Gould, Bedford and Rep. Aidan Ankarberg, Strafford.

But the actual language of the statute results in a new imbalance where religious land use is subject to fewer restrictions than non-religious counterparts, Hanover Planning and Zoning Director Rob Houseman said in a phone interview.

Despite concerns of Greensboro Road residents about the proposed church’s impact on traffic safety and the neighborhood — including noise, light pollution and stormwater runoff — town planning staff said that the Planning Board cannot weigh many of those concerns in their consideration of the site plan.

“The Planning Board may not require compliance with any local zoning or site plan review regulations except those specifically allowed per the statute, and only if compliance does not substantially burden religious exercise,” Hanover Planner Bruce Simpson wrote in an written overview of the law in June.

Email and phone calls to Chris Audino, executive pastor at Christ Redeemer Church, were not returned.

Jeff Acker, who lives on Greensboro Road and has opposed past efforts by the church to build in the same location, questioned the law’s constitutionality, saying that it gives special privileges to religious organizations at the burden of local citizens.

“That’s a pretty radical law,” Acker said. “And to my knowledge it has yet to get (legally) challenged.”

Acker was among the neighbors who pushed back against the proposed church in 2018, when Christ Redeemer Church sought a special exception from the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The board initially denied the use, by a 3-2 vote in December 2018, but reversed the decision the following year after an appeal by Christ Redeemer Church, which asserted the town’s zoning ordinance discriminates against religious institutions by requiring churches to obtain a special exception in areas of town where other uses don’t require one.

In 2018, many neighbors objected to the size of the building, as well as the anticipated traffic and light. Acker and seven other residents, also spoke in opposition to the project on Nov. 7 during a public hearing by the Planning Board, but this time, he said, the concerns conveyed were about the new law and “whether we even have the right to talk about those things.”

The Planning Board could consider approving the church’s site plan with a disclaimer that the board’s decision is not based on the town’s criteria. A written draft of such a decision was included in the Planning Board meeting packet for consideration.

The Planning Board also will consider whether to file a petition to state legislators asking for RSA 674:76 to be repealed and replaced with a version that still protects religious freedom without exempting religious uses from local zoning or planning regulations.

“To truly effect the stated intent of the law, the statute could simply say (that) ‘no zoning ordinance or site plan review regulation shall regulate or restrict a religious use of land or structures differently than it does similar uses of a non-religious nature’,” the petition states.

Houseman said that this petition is a separate issue from whether or not the board approves the proposed church.

“The purpose of the petition is to say to state legislators that change in the law is needed,” he said.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.

 CORRECTIONS: The New Hampshire statute addressing religious use of land or buildings is RSA 674:76. The statute number cited in a previous version of this story was incorrect. The building’s total square footage — including the second floor and balconies — will be approximately 21,500 square feet. A previous version of the story included an incomplete measurement of the building’s size. The proposed house of worship for Christ Redeemer Church in Hanover is expected to allow a maximum occupancy of approximately 400 people. The capacity cited in a previous version of this story was incorrect.